MOUTHING OFF

A fish story: I never trusted supermarket seafood departments because too many questions went unanswered--like when the fish came in, how long it would stay at peak, or whether the snapper was from the Gulf or the Atlantic. But all of that changed when I met Carolyn Mason, seafood-department manager at the Parker Safeway.

Before I actually exchanged words with Mason, I'd spent a few months watching her in action from a safe distance away in the produce department. It was immediately obvious that this is a woman who loves her job. The slightest pause or furrowed brow on a customer lingering over the salmon fillets causes her to leap--and that's the best way to describe it--from behind the glass display cases to offer information, advice, recipes or whatever she thinks you need. I got all of the above the first time I ventured over to check out Mason's tilapia selection. "Did you know that tilapia is the oldest fish recorded in the Bible?" she asked me as she handed my cranky toddler a coloring book and an entire box of Town House crackers. "I think it's one of the best fish we have. Just got it in today. Put that under the broiler for a few minutes and it'll be heaven. Wait, I've got a great marinade for it." She charged into the walk-in cooler and came back with a few packets of honey-mustard marinade. "These are samples. No charge."

The true test of anyone's mettle, of course, is their behavior during the hectic holiday season. And Mason, whose no-nonsense look turns to marshmallow whenever children approach, passed that test with flying colors. Manning her area like a mama dolphin, she worked the twenty or thirty people demanding fresh fish two days before Christmas as if they were at her own private cocktail gathering. "It's your party and you can fry if you want to," she quipped to one worried-looking woman whose mother-in-law was coming. "This smoked salmon is the perfect appetizer; same price as that non-seasoned kind, too," she said as she doled out samples and folks started grabbing up packages.

My order from a few weeks prior for some whole pompano and snapper was filled, and then some. "Okay, you got your whole fish, and look at these eyes," Mason said as proudly as if it were a friend's newborn. "They wanted to jack the price up on me at the last minute, but I just won't stand for that. But they are beautiful, aren't they?" And indeed they were, and deliciously fresh, too. Mason gave me a quick hug--she hugged about half of the people assembled there--and wished me happy holidays. "Wait!" she yelled as I was about to go. "Here, let me give you some ice packs to put around those. No charge."

A few of Mason's co-workers should take a lesson from her. When I called to find out how long she'd been with Safeway, I was shuffled around to a number of people--Mason wasn't in that day--before one of the managers got on the phone. "I guess I can find that out for you in my spare time," she said, before taking exactly eight seconds of that time to look into her computer and glean that Mason's been with the company since 1984. When I pressed to learn how much of that time has been at the Parker store, the manager sighed, told me to hold and returned to say "Four years." I got in a thanks just before I heard the click of the phone.

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Kyle Wagner
Contact: Kyle Wagner